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  • Amy L. Blair (bio)
Barbara Sicherman . Well-Read Lives: How Books Inspired a Generation of American Women. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010. 392 pp. Illustrations, notes, bibliography, and index. $35.00.

Barbara Sicherman has been a central figure in historical reception studies since the publication of her essay "Sense and Sensibility: A Case Study of Women's Reading in Late-Victorian America" in Cathy Davidson's collection Reading in America: Literature and Social History (1989). An eminent historian of women's and medical history, Sicherman first wrote about the Hamilton family's literarily referential discourse in her study of Alice Hamilton's lifelong correspondence (Alice Hamilton: A Life in Letters, 1984). Her expansion of that work in "Sense and Sensibility" adapted Janice Radway's ethnographic approach (Reading the Romance, 1984) to historical subjects. Since the mid-1980s, the field of historical reception studies has steadily grown in influence, culminating most recently with a flurry of excellent recent monographs devoted to the question of American historical reception studies. Gordon Hutner's What America Read (2010) takes up where Janice Radway's A Feeling for Books (1999) and Joan Shelley Rubin's The Making of Middlebrow Culture (1992) left off, defining more completely the genre of middlebrow reading that flourished in the United States from the 1920s through the 1960s. James Machor, a founding figure of historical reception studies, has recently published Reading Fiction in Antebellum America (2011), which treats both professional and "non-professional" reception of popular writers in the early nineteenth century; while Barbara Hochman's Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Reading Revolution (2011) traces the contemporaneous and latter-day reception history of one of the most significant novels ever published in the United States. The publication of Well-Read Lives only intensifies the sense that this is a heady time for reception studies. Sicherman's monograph is the culmination of two decades of careful archival work, including significantly revised versions of articles previously published both in journals and in a number of significant collections of historical reception studies; the resulting monograph is a beautifully coherent text in which the whole is definitely more than the sum of its already excellent parts. [End Page 277]

Among the problems facing the scholar interested in what historical readers actually made of the books they read, the most intractable is certainly that of evidence. The "real reader" is an elusive creature—her thoughts are frequently not reliably recorded in writing, and what documentary evidence may once have existed is rarely preserved in the archive. And yet, even if one is to find the elusive treasure trove of documented reader response, daunting barriers exist to interpreting these first-person accounts. How can we know, for example, whether a historical agent is reporting his or her reaction to a text truthfully? Might a letter to a friend say more about how that friendship negotiates books and meanings than what the book itself "really" meant to the reader? Isn't a printed response—a book review, a letter printed in a periodical, an interview—overdetermined in multiple ways by the occasion of the printing, by the author's perceptions of his or her own readers' expectations, and by the need to present oneself as a particular kind of reader and thinker in a particular circumstance?

Sicherman meets these challenges by approaching her subject from multiple perspectives, which divide her text into three sections. In the first, she speaks of young nineteenth-century women's reading generally, employing Louisa May Alcott's Little Women as a central touchstone. Noting that many people have read Little Woman as a text that disciplines its young female readers into complacently valorizing domesticity, Sicherman counters that "a comparison with other girls' stories of the period marks it as a text that opens up new avenues for readers rather than foreclosing them" (p. 19). Herein, Sicherman finds the central premise of her study: that reading fiction enabled a significant group of young nineteenth-century women to imagine themselves as thinking, working, and striving—as educated and public actors. In the second chapter, Sicherman establishes the centrality of reading to middle-class identity in the late...


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